How we use big data to tell important stories.
Not Shutting Up
By Richard Tofel

Welcome to Not Shutting Up, a newsletter from ProPublica’s president, Dick Tofel. You’re receiving this because you’ve supported ProPublica’s journalism; we’re grateful for that, and we hope to give you some context on how our newsroom works. If this email was forwarded to you, you can sign up to receive it here.


Dear ProPublican,

There is so much information to sort through right now, so much we all want to understand, so much we need to know to keep ourselves, our families, our colleagues and our communities safe, so much we must sift as citizens in order to thoughtfully and effectively exercise our responsibilities.

Part of our job at ProPublica is to help. We try to do that by debunking misinformation, as we did recently with a piece by Marshall Allen on the “Plandemic” video, or with explanatory stories like those we did in the last week by Caroline Chen on contact tracing and by Allen, Chen and Megan Rose on the emerging science on the virus and children. But this week I want to talk about a somewhat different sort of journalism we also do that seems especially relevant these days: the creation and publishing of what we call news applications.

News applications, a field we helped pioneer a bit more than a decade ago, use large data sets to tell important stories, frequently in ways that are highly customizable, by location or another important dimension. During this crisis, we’ve published them on hospital capacity nationally and specifically in Illinois, confirmed cases by neighborhood in New York and, more recently, possible violations of the federal moratorium on evictions, as well as an app on federal contracts, tracking whom the U.S. is buying from, what it’s buying and how much it’s paying.

Perhaps our most ambitious news application of this crisis period was published last week. It charts the efforts to reopen the states, and it can be found here. For each of the 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico, it provides information, updated daily, on each of five dimensions that the White House task force has said are the keys to responsible reopening.

At a glance, you can see for your own location, or another in which you’re interested, when the state’s stay-at-home order expired, how many positive tests it is recording as a proportion of population and the percentage of tests that are positive, as well as whether those rates are rising or falling. The app also charts ICU bed availability in each state and hospital visits for flu-like illness, as well as whether such visits are increasing or decreasing in recent weeks. Each of these dimensions is then summed up with a simple green or red indicator, reflecting whether or not they comport with the guidelines for gradual reopening (or gray if they are holding steady).

That’s an enormous amount of information conveyed quite simply, and I think effectively. Distilling it was the result of weeks of work by my colleagues Lena Groeger and Ash Ngu, two of ProPublica’s eight news application developers. Here, for instance, is what the graphic for Texas looked like earlier this week:

Texas reopening graphic

Unfortunately, I should tell you that, also as of yesterday, just 11 of the 52 states and other places charted had five green or gray indicators out of five.

This data not only needs to be updated daily, the quality of the numbers must be reconsidered constantly. Just a day after we released the reopening app, for instance, press reports — most notably in The Atlantic — revealed that the CDC and a number of states had been silently combining, in their public reports, tests for people who have the virus currently with antibody tests indicating previous illness. This was a stunningly misleading mixing of scientific apples and oranges, and it required us to quickly adjust our own methodology to filter out the resulting statistical noise. We did that within a couple of days. Our team remains on alert for further anomalies, whether they are the result of carelessness by public officials or any effort to minimize the dangers we all continue to face.

You deserve no less.

Regards, Dick

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